Conversation, music and novelty

In my 2/14/14 post I talked about the hippocampus, an evolutionarily older area of cortex.  Information from posterior perceptual areas flows through the hippocampus, which processes it for context and novelty, then sends the results forward.  A good example can be seen when a cat hears a noise, freezes and orients to check it out, and then moves forward figuring what the new situation is.


Novelty is more complicated than might be supposed.  Perceptually it is detected when something changes or when something expected to change doesn’t change as expected.  The change may be about something static, e.g., an object, or dynamic, e.g., a stream of sound or passing scent.  Something uninteresting may change because of changes within the animal.  Figure may become ground or vice versa.  Perceptually we respond to ambient energies but that response is a very creative task.

Now we return to the 3/30/14 post about conversation.  The left side processes the semantic, syntactic, and phonemic information of a sentence while the right processes the intonation or the prosody of the utterance.  What comprises novelty here is made even more complicated because we are creating the information as we make meaning, because the grammatical and pragmatic information pose different challenges but must be integrated, and because of the rapid and ephemeral exchange composing the communication.


Maybe the hippocampi, right and left, are involved in this, but more likely higher cortical areas come into play as we understand a comment on a topic and then make our own new comment and then carry on, maybe even changing topics again while monitoring the interpersonal prosody for such things as changes in tone for sarcasm, excitement, joy, sorrow, etc.

An interesting feature of this processing comes when considering H. P. Grice’s 4 conversational maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner.  Briefly, when conversing we expect people to say not too much or too little, to be clear, to be on topic and to be genuine.  These are probably not so much maxims as dimensions shaped by assumptions, so that when we detect a violation, that constitutes novelty.  When we hear a crash from the next room and ask our child what happened and he answers, “Nothing,” that is too little.  When someone goes off topic or becomes tangential or speaks unclearly or sarcastically or (we suspect) disingenuously we may interrupt and intervene to further successful communication.  Novelty of a different and rarefied sort.  Now on to music.


Daniel Levitin in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, explains how new and old patterns or gestalts are important for music on several levels.  Different cultures have different musical keys which set up our expectations.  The progression of notes and tempo set up expectations which a skilled composer can exploit in order to express different feelings or concepts.  Our memory is important in catching on to the variations of themes.  A performer’s musicality depends in part upon their ability to vary timing and emphasis, etc., a fresh counter to the staid black and white score.  So novelty comes in various forms and guises, each important to the communication of symbolic import through the specialized channels of the MEMBRAIN.   Now this is getting interesting.  Next up?  Either my quibbles with Levitin or an introduction here to the arcuate fasciculus.

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